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Urban Educators Debate Testing in National Town Hall

Milwaukee

A national town hall here on testing—on its relevance, frequency, purpose, and whether assessments are the best measures of student learning and teacher impact—left things pretty much the way they were before the event started: unresolved.

The Friday afternoon forum, organized by the Council of the Great City Schools, was just the latest examination of assessments in a rapidly expanding debate over their value. It comes as many states and school districts gear up for the new, fully-operational Common Core-aligned tests next spring. 

Just this week, Chicago Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced that she was seeking a one-year delay on using PARCC tests districtwide in order to continue piloting the assessments. Concerns about overtesting, accommodations for English-learners and the amount of information the tests will provide teachers were also considerations. 

The council, whose members have been meeting here all week during its annual national conference, has undertaken an extensive, year-long review of assessments in some of the nation's largest school systems. 

Preliminary numbers confirmed what many already knew: students spend a lot of time taking tests.

The data showed 113 different assessments across the council districts—not including those that were given to a sample of the schools' populations. Eleventh graders can take up to 11 different assessments during the year. Eighth and 11th graders can spend about 30 hours on tests during the year, according to the council's data. It will be months before the final report is released.  

Friday's town hall panel brought together representatives from groups with a stake in the debate: a school board member, two big-city superintendents, a student, a representative from the Council of Chief State School Officers (the group that represents state education superintendents and education secretaries), and an assessment expert. 

Notably missing from the dais were representatives for the testing companies (who took some heat for the quality of the assessments, the designs, and the delays in making the results available to schools) and the teachers.  The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have both asked for less testing in schools.

Reviewing Assessments

For the most part, panelists agreed there needed to be review of the number of assessments. The most extensive comments were reserved for the relevance of the tests and a discussion on the differences in the American testing regime—developed over the last decade or so since the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act—and other high-performing countries where students outperform American students but are tested less frequently. At times, it seemed like there were two parallel discussions.

St. Paul, Minn., Superintendent Valeria Silva, who confessed to having a love-hate relationship with tests, said the country needed to figure out which assessments were relevant to students and teachers. She is concerned about the labels that are attached to students and schools with poor performance.

She acknowledged, however, that there was a place for testing.

"If someone would say to me today that [here is] this magic wand, what would you like to do instead of testing. I don't know if I have an answer," she said, "because I also want to know, when my students come in my classroom, as an educator, where they are, where they are moving, and where do they need to end up."

Jaxs Goldsmith, the senior class president at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, said that there were two state tests, including the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts in Education (WKCE), that he and his friends breezed through. There were no consequences associated with not doing well on them, he said, and no colleges take the scores into consideration.  

"I just honestly feel like...some were somewhat a waste of time," Goldsmith said. "ACT and SAT testing, perfect," because colleges took those into account in determining whether a student was a good fit for a particular college.

Chris Minnich, the executive director, of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said Goldsmith's opinion was a valuable part of the debate.

"He talked about relevance," Minnich said of Goldsmith. "And relevance is absolutely critical to our testing systems. If kids are not engaged in what they are doing on these assessments, I don't even really want to use those results to see how we are doing. I think the motivation effects are something we have to think about as we are setting up state testing programs."

But are the tests doing what they are designed to? Marc S. Tucker, the president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Education and the Economy, argued that they were not. In fact, they have had the opposite effects, resulting in a narrower curriculum, low teacher morale, plummeting applications to education schools, and the recruitment of teachers "from the lowest levels of high school graduates," he said.

"There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improve student performance, much less the improved performance of the very low-income and minority students for which this system was created," he said.

Tucker argued that the United States was the only one among high-performing countries with yearly, high-stakes tests. The frequency of the testing has led the states to use the cheapest—and not necessarily the best—models, he said.

He called for a regime in which each state would test students when they entered 1st grade—not for accountability purposes, but to set a baseline so teachers get an idea of what individual students may need. He proposed accountability tests at the end of 4th and 8th grades, and another in 10th grade—but which also can be taken in 11th or 12th grades— to determine whether students are college- and career-ready. Sample tests can be taken in grades two and sixth to gauge schoolwide progress and direction, he said.

Minnich said he disagreed with Tucker's premise that the NCLB-driven tests were laden with such negative consequences. They helped to reveal deficiencies that were unknown before, he said, a point on which District of Columbia Chancellor Kaya Henderson agreed.

"For a long time, we let gaps persist, and we didn't have assessments to show us that," Minnich said.

Henderson called for a "reasonable middle"  between the low, or no accountability of the pre-NCLB years and the era of "uber accountability and test mania."

"I think the challenge is really the transition from where were are to where we need to be," she said.  "When we figured out that there was a problem, we kind of went whole hog on this... and I think what we learned is that that's not the right approach."

A pilot approach may be the best way to make the transition, allowing a few districts to experiment with a different system, she said.  But doing so still left the issue of teacher quality on the table, she said.

"Outside of an infusion of human capital...then it doesn't matter what kind of accountability regimen that we have if we are not equipped to provide the young people that we are teaching with high-caliber teachers," she said.

Silva agreed:  "We are wasting time trying to focus on if the test is good or not," Silva said. "We need to focus on why are we testing and how it's affecting the future of the students."

The Council of the Great City Schools and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the organization that Minnich heads, pledged last week to review the number and types of tests that  students were taking and work toward reducing the ones found to be redundant.

Michael C. Harris, the principal at Goldsmith's high school, said as an educator he saw assessments as a valuable tool.

"It really should inform the work that we do in our classrooms," he said in answer to a question from Goldsmith on whether he agreed that some of the tests were irrelevant. "It also provides us an opportunity to find out what our students know and are able to do."

The challenge in Milwaukee is that the assessments take away from the time teachers could spend building relationships with children, he said.

He said he values "the fact that we use assessments to inform our instruction. I also value the opportunity it provides us to help our students grow and to set goals for themselves as they move out throughout their high school journey." However, "it's burdensome on the schools, it's attacking teachers, and it doesn't create the environment in which we should be doing the most important work, which is teaching our kids," he said.

Jill Speering, a former teacher who is a member of the Metropolitan Nashville school board; and Jody London, a member of the Oakland Unified school board in California; wanted to know how the panelists differentiated between high-stakes assessments and those meant to determine whether students were learning the lessons from class.

Tucker said that teachers and schools could develop targeted questions—as is the case in some parts of Asia—that they can ask kids following the class to ascertain whether the students were on track.

Steve Burger, assistant superintendent of instruction and equity at School District U-46, outside of Chicago, wanted to know the panel's opinion on testing English-language learners and whether ELL students should be tested annually to determine whether they can move into mainstream classes. 

Silva, who is originally from Chile, said she was philosophically opposed to isolating English-language learners, and that based on her experience in St. Paul, she did not think that one should measure English proficiency in a student who may have left a refugee camp "12 months and a day" before being tested.

Under NCLB, ELLs must take state content assessments in math and reading after they have been enrolled in U.S. schools for a year.

She suggested instead the possibility of testing English-language learners after three years. 

"Right now, our ELL students are double-tested, which I don't believe is helping them with their self esteem," she said, "neither is it helping them with the belief that they are ever going to speak English."

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